Eminent Domain: 9, Mary and Rufus

The first eight chapters of this novel, Eminent Domain, can be found here or by clicking on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.

9 Mary and Rufus
February 10, 1988

Mary stirred the coals in the wood box of the Home Comfort cook stove. The barrel next to the cook stove was low on wood, and she had to lean far over to find some of the precious locust wood to make the fire hot enough to bake biscuits. She glanced toward her husband — Rufus was sitting at the kitchen table staring blankly at the newspaper she had set in front of him. He had always made sure the wood barrel was filled. Not that she couldn’t do it; the wood was just around the corner of the house, and often she had filled the barrel herself during the day when he had been at work. It was just one more thing that was disappearing from him.

She wouldn’t think about that now. Jackie was coming out to visit. She idly thought maybe he would fill the wood barrel for her when he came in, and then chuckled to herself at the picture of him getting wood for her in his city shoes and lawyer clothes. She filled the wood box of the stove with the locust, and looked out the kitchen windows at the snow. Thank heaven for John and Elizabeth. John kept their driveway plowed and the boys shoveled her walkway to the woodshed. Elizabeth stopped or phoned every time she was going to town to ask about groceries and supplies.

“Rufe, remember Jackie is coming out? He’ll be here anytime now.”

“Wha’d you say, Mary?”

“Remember, Jackie? He’s coming to visit this morning.”

“Oh, Jackie. Haven’t seen him for awhile…”

“Yes. It’s been a long time. Remember he’s a lawyer now — works in town…”

“A lawyer! When’d that happen?”

She sighed, and then caught a glimpse of a small black car on the road, slowing down to turn in the drive. “Here he is. Remember, it’s Jackie.”

“Yes, you told me that,” he said, disgruntled. He reached for his coffee. “Mary, is there more coffee? This is cold.”

Sometimes she just had to laugh. “Well, Rufus, that’s because you just let it set there and get cold. Yes, there’s more, love.” She took his untouched cup and poured it back in the pot, swished the pot around, and poured him a new cup. She put the warmed coffee in front of him and kissed the top of his head. He had done for her for most of their fifty-three years together — now it was her turn to do for him.

Jack knocked on the door, and she motioned him inside. The door opened with a blast of cold air and swirling snow. “The wind never quits on this hill, does it?” he grinned and rushed over to hug her. “Ah, this kitchen smells just like I remember it — coffee, wood smoke, and bacon.”

“And biscuits,” she said. “It’s been so long since you’ve been here, you have to rely on your old memories…” she scolded.

“Please don’t lecture me,” Jack said as he took off his jacket and hung it up in the mudroom. “And Rufus…you’re looking great. I brought you some store-bought doughnuts.”

Rufus stood up smiling and offered his hand. Jack brushed his hand away and gently hugged his frail frame.

“Hello Jackie,” he said. “Long time, no see.” He looked at the white bag that Jack had shoved in his hand. “Now what’s this again?”

Jack laughed. “Rufus, you’re so used to Mary’s homemade cooking, you don’t even remember store-bought doughnuts!”

“Sit down, Jackie,” Mary ordered. “The biscuits will be ready in a few minutes. Here’s some coffee.”

Jack went over to look in the wood barrel. “You need wood, Mary. Let me go get you some.”

She smiled. “We’re fine for breakfast. You can fill it before you leave.”

He put his arm around her shoulders. “Mary,” he said, “you need to think about getting a more modern stove. Jeez, I hate to say that, I love this stove, but you’re not going to be able to cut and split wood for this old thing forever.” He lowered his voice, “Can Rufe still help you with it?”

She shook her head. “John and the boys help. And look at this…” She walked over to the mudroom and rummaged in one of the wooden boxes that lined the outside wall. They were filled with the sundries of country life: butternut squash, onions, egg cartons, boots… and she proudly held up a small electric chain saw.

“Mary, put that thing down, “Rufus said from his chair. “You know I can help you with the firewood.”

Mary rolled her eyes at Jackie.

He said, “I’m guessing Rufus didn’t buy that for you.”

“John brought it over this fall and showed me how to use it. It’s a little noisy for Rufus.” She put the saw back in its box, and went back to cooking.

Jack sat down at the table across from Rufus. “Hey, I see your old truck parked out front. Is it still running good?”

“My truck? I haven’t driven it in awhile. All the snow, you know?” he answered.

Mary had her back to them at the stove. “Rufe,” she said. “Remember you and John gave Eli a driving lesson on the dirt road?”

“Eh?” Rufus looked momentarily confused, then smiled. “He took that bend too fast, and we ended up in the field. I made him get right back in and try it again.”

Jack looked up. “He did that too? How old is Eli now?”

Mary never turned around from the stove. “No, he’s remembering the driving lessons with you. Eli’s twelve. He did fine around that bend. Course, he’s been driving a tractor for two years…”

Jack looked from Rufus to Mary. She could feel him looking at her and turned. She smiled sadly, “You are the big thing in our memories, you know? And that’s what he has right now. But even they are fading fast. I’m glad for them, though. He reminds me of things that I hadn’t thought about for years.” She turned back to the stove and opened the oven door to turn the pan of biscuits. “Get in the icebox and find the apple butter and the jelly, would you please?” She reached up into the warming oven and pulled out a platter of bacon and scrambled eggs. “I had lots of eggs to use up; I hope this suits…”

“Are you kidding? I haven’t had…”

Mary interrupted him. “What about that accident? Why did the newspaper quote that Alex from Penndot? Do you know him? What do you think about this whole thing?”

“Any other questions?” he asked mildly. He put the apple butter and the raspberry jam on the table in front of Rufus. Mary was heaping eggs and bacon on warm plates. She brought them to the table and went back for the biscuits. “Rufus, we’re going to have breakfast with Jackie.”

“I already ate breakfast, Mary,” Rufus answered.

“Eating again won’t hurt you, you’re such a Skinny Minnie these days.” She put the biscuits in a fresh towel and brought them to the table.

“I’ll take six of those, please,” Jack grinned.

“You can come eat here anytime, you know. But I won’t say any more. I know, you’re busy with lawyering and town life. And girls…” she smiled at him. “Any one in particular, yet?”

“No, Mary,” he said emphatically. “None of them can cook like you.”

“Hush,” she said.

Jack ate hungrily, spreading Mary’s apple butter thickly on the warm biscuits. Mary reached over and put a doughnut on Rufus’ plate. He had been pushing his eggs around with a fork, but his eyes lit up at the sugary pastry. “Say, where’d we get these?” he asked. “I haven’t had a good doughnut in a long time.”

“Jackie brought them for you, Rufe,” Mary reminded him. He tucked into the doughnut with gusto, and Mary put a second one on his plate. She looked up at Jackie who had been quietly watching.

Her sad eyes and half-smile said everything to him. She hadn’t changed much, just a few more lines around her eyes and a few more pounds around her apron. Her dark hair was still done in a coil at the back, and there was very little gray. Her smile was still beautiful.

“Now about all those questions,” he started. “I can’t answer them all. I read that editorial five times, trying to read between the lines, and what I think is that Bill Clancey got hold of a good story and he’s trying to rile things up. It may work; it may not; it may backfire big time on him; or maybe nothing will come of it. Hard to say. As far as Alex Goddard? I do know him. He was a sometime drinking buddy for awhile. I like him. He just got married so I haven’t seen him lately. We even dated the same girl for awhile. Well, not at the same time. At least, I don’t think so….”

“Is he a good man?” Mary asked.

“I like him. Don’t know him too well, but he always seemed like a straight talker, no bull-kind-of-guy.”

“I remember last time… Would it be the same thing? The same road plan? Or would they do something new? What should we do?”

“Pray, Mary. Do you still pray?”

“I have been Jackie. I’ve been praying solidly since I read that article this morning.” Mary put down her fork and looked at Jack. “Jackie, if something happens… with this road. You’ll help us, won’t you? We can’t pay you much, but…”

“Now you hush,” Jack ordered her. “In the first place, if something happens, I will absolutely do everything I can for you. For everyone out here. But I don’t know if I’m the right person. Eminent Domain law — land rights — it’s just tricky. There’s rules about it, you know, and they’re very complicated. But I will say, I’m going back to my office and I’m going to start studying. And if I figure I can’t do the best for you, I’ll find out who will be the best. And we might even be getting ahead of ourselves. We don’t even know if anything is going to happen. Sometimes this kind of stuff sits on bureaucrats’ desks for years. And politicians have to approve funds — it really could be years…”

“I just didn’t like the way those reporters interviewed Alex about the twelve-year-plan.” Mary stood up to clear the plates. “Rufe, you ate all three of those doughnuts!”

Rufe grinned. He had sugar all around his mouth. “Best damn doughnuts I’ve ever had. Where’d we get doughnuts anyway?”

Mary laughed and turned to Jack. “Now you know what your job is every time you come to visit.”

Jack smiled too. “I’ll try to visit more often. Though, Rufe, too many of those doughnuts aren’t good for you.”

“Oh, you brought the doughnuts, didn’t you, Jackie?” Rufe said in a moment of clarity. “Well thank you. They were great.” Jack got up and hugged the old man goodbye.

Mary was packing biscuits in a tupperware container. She put in a jar of apple butter and some homemade pickles, too. “Now you have to bring the container back to me,” she said, her dark eyes dancing.

Jack was putting on his coat. “You just sit down for a minute, Mary. I’m going to load up your wood barrel. I think I remember how.”

“Now, you don’t have on the right shoes,” Mary protested.

“Look here, Rufe’s boots will fit right over my shoes,” he argued, and he had the boots on and was out the door before she could say more.

He made three trips and had the wood barrel overflowing by the time she had washed the dishes. “Walk out to the car with me, Mary,” he called. She came into the mudroom with a large grocery bag filled with her homemade goodies.

She handed him the bag. “Don’t argue,” she said. “I hardly have anyone to give my food away to anymore.”

He hugged her. “I wasn’t going to argue. Thank you. It will all get eaten — every crumb.”

“I’ll be right back, Rufe,” Mary called.

Outside, the sun was brilliant in a bright sky and the trees dripped heavily making giant pock marks in the snow. “You be careful driving in that little car. When everything gets slushy, its dangerous.”

“This is a Honda, Mary. It’s a great snow car. How do you get to town?”

“Elizabeth takes me sometimes. But more and more I stay home with Rufe. She always calls before she goes and asks me if I need groceries or supplies. You should go over to see them, Jackie. They’d love to see you. And you wouldn’t recognize the kids. They are growing so fast.”

For the first time since he’d been there, Jack checked his watch. “Can’t today, Mary. But next time I come visit you, I’ll definitely go over and say hey. Sounds like they are a big help to my favorite people.”

“They’re great neighbors,” she said. “Almost as good as you and your dad were.” She hugged him so he wouldn’t see her teary eyes.

She watched him back out the driveway and waved until the car was out of sight. Of course, she could always blame her watering eyes on the bright sun.

Eminent Domain: 8, Jack Stuckey

The first seven chapters of this novel, Eminent Domain, can be found by clicking on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.

8 Jack Stuckey
Wednesday morning, Feb. 10, 1988

The dented blue and white pickup with a plow on its front was still pushing snow across the Mister Donut parking lot at a quarter-till-seven when Jack Stuckey slogged through the slush that was left behind. Inside the glass doors, he slipped on the wet floor and slid up to the counter. The cute little blonde that he always flirted with when he bought his morning coffee looked apologetic. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We just can’t keep up with the slush this morning. We might as well not even have a rug there, it’s so saturated.”

On cue, the sullen teen-aged boy, who sometimes washed dishes and toted around buckets of donut filling, made his way out to the front with a mop and a bucket.

“Don’t put any more water on that floor,” shouted Vic from the back. “I’ve got a dry rug back here. Roll up that wet one, and toss it out front on the concrete.”

The teenager, who wore a spiky red Mohawk and a baggy black Metallica t-shirt, moved his head back and forth in mocking imitation of the boss’ voice. He looked up and saw Jack watching him and grinned sheepishly.

“A good attitude is everything on days like this,” Jack lectured him. “Hey, you’re doing great by even being here this early.” He looked at the girl behind the counter, who just yesterday had started wearing a name tag that identified her as Misty. “What am I doing here this early, Misty? Isn’t this a great day to sleep in?”

She smiled. “It wasn’t hard for me to get here, I just live down the street.”

“Yeah, also a good day to walk,” Jack agreed.

“And it wasn’t hard for him to get here — his dad drags him.” She glanced back at Vic.

“How about my usual coffee? And a half-dozen sugar-raised as a treat for a snowy morning? Get yourself and this hard-working young man here his choice too.”

Vic came out from the back, shouldering a new, dry rug. “Hey Jack,” he said. “No feeding my good-for-nothing help until he’s done his job.”

“This your boy, Vic? We’ve not been introduced.”

“He only works here when there’s no school. Josh, say hello to Jack, and then avoid him like the plague — he’s a lawyer and…”

“No lawyer jokes this morning, Vic. I’m not in the mood.”

“I s’pose you saw the headlines.” Vic had set down the dry rug, and he and his son were muscling the sopping rug out the door. He looked up. “Wouldn’t do to have a lawyer slip and fall in your establishment.”

In spite of himself, Jack grinned. “You got that right, Vic. You’d better get that dry rug down before the next customer comes in and falls right in front of me.”

Misty put the white donut bag and the coffee in front of him, and Jack pulled out a ten dollar bill. “Keep the change, Misty. Put it in your college fund.”

There was a folded up morning newspaper on the counter that someone had left behind. “Mind if I take this?” Jack asked.

“Didn’t you read it already?” Vic asked.

“Yeah, I did. But I’m feeling like I might need another copy of this today. You know, one for home and one for the office.”

Vic grunted. “Glad I never bought that house I was looking at on 592.”

“Well,” Jack said, “if you had, you might be out of a house soon.”

“Didn’t you grow up out there?” Vic asked.

“I did.” Jack said. “I sure did.”

#

He leaped over a pile of snow, jaywalked across the street, and headed over to his office, just a few blocks away in one of the stately Victorian houses on the opposite side of the town square from the courthouse. The location was great, but his office was upstairs and not easily accessible to anyone older or in a wheelchair. He sometimes had to meet clients somewhere other than his office. Compared to being so close to the courthouse it was a mild inconvenience, but the second floor location made the office more affordable for a young attorney who didn’t particularly like remembering that he had law school debt to pay.

He sat down at his desk and unfolded the paper to read between the lines of Clancey’s editorial for the third time while he drank his coffee. Not far into his coffee and donut, his attention wandered — to the house where he grew up — to his dad — to Mary and Rufe — to the road in question — to remembering that time before, when, as a six-year-old kid, he was terribly afraid of losing the only security he had. Twenty-five years later the memory of sitting at the top of the stairs listening to shouting in the room below, still brought a visceral clutch to his stomach.

He could hear Mary’s distraught voice, cutting high into the general male voices when she asked, “But, Allen, are they really goin’ to listen to us? Who are we? We’re mostly nobodies with no money and no clout.”

Rufe, her husband, had scolded her gently, “Hush, Mary. Allen here is the County Commissioner. And we have all three of them on our side.”

It was enlightening to six-year-old Jackie to know that others thought his dad had power too. The next day at Mary and Rufe’s for breakfast, he and Mary were alone as usual. His dad had walked him over before he left for work, and Rufe was long gone for work. Mary was fixing him a dippy egg and toast, and he was watching the steam droplets meander slowly down the windows. The windows were crying, and suddenly he was aware of his fear of losing her, losing Rufe, losing his dad. “Mary, where are we going to go if our houses get tooken?” he had asked. He cried then, and she turned to scoop him up to her. They sat at the kitchen table, and she held him tight, rocking him back and forth. “We aren’t goin’ anywhere, and no one is goin’ to take our houses,” she assured him. “Your Dad is fightin’ for us, and we know what a fighter he is, don’t we?”

Her other words of comfort were lost in the clouds of time, but the smell of the warm breakfast kitchen, her bacon-scented apron, her ample arms around him, the crying windows — it all spoke to him of home.

The phone startled him back to 1988.

“Jackie?” Mary’s voice was unforgettable.

Incredulous, he answered her, “Mary! I can’t believe it’s you. I was just here in a reverie about my days in your kitchen, and you interrupted it with this phone call! I can’t believe it, Mary,” he laughed. “You never call me.”

“Well, you never call me either,” she chided him. “Jackie, I’m sure you’ve read the papers.” Her voice was loud — as if she had never learned that shouting into modern phones wasn’t necessary.

He smiled to himself as he held the receiver away from his ear. “How about a visit, Mary?” he asked. “Can you still make dippy eggs?”

She snorted into the phone. “I guess I have to call you and beg you to visit me these days,” she complained. “You know you don’t have to ask. We’re always here. But Jackie, there’s a lot of snow. The boys are shoveling the driveway now, but be careful when you pull in.”

“Right, I’ll be out in about a half-hour,” he said. “Do you need anything?”

“No,” she said, and her loud voice trailed into something softer. “Jackie, you know about Rufe…”

“Yes, Mary, I know.”

“Well, he’s worse than the last time you saw him,” she said. “I’m just warnin’ you.”

“Would he like some store-bought doughnuts, do you think?”

He could feel her smile over the phone. “I reckon he would,” she said.

“Done,” Jack said. He hung up the phone with new energy. A visit with Mary was just what he needed on this bleak morning.

Eminent Domain: 7, Phyllis

To read from the beginning of this novel, Eminent Domain, you can click here or on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.

7 PHYLLIS
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 1988

Phyllis woke with a start when the cat vaulted over her head and off the bed. She should be used to it by now. When Ron, who delivered her newspaper, offered to bring it to the door instead of leaving it in the mailbox at the bottom of the driveway, she jumped at the chance and offered him an extra tip. Now she regretted it though — every morning at 5:00 sharp, the newspaper hit the door, the cat leaped up to investigate the noise, and she was awake.

Sometimes she would snuggle back under the covers and try to squeeze in another hour, but this morning she knew she would never go back to sleep. She shrugged on her robe for warmth, and wandered out to the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot. The aforementioned cat, Tootsie, was sitting at the door staring at the newspaper. Or perhaps she was staring at the foot of snow mounded by the door, underneath the newspaper.

fullsizeoutput_18e7“Eh, there’d better be something good in it, Tootsie, for the trouble you’ve caused,” Phyllis grumbled good-naturedly. She peered out into the dark; the lamp post down the walk was still lit, the walk was covered with snow, but  her driveway was mostly plowed. At the bottom she could see the headlight of Matt’s tractor making passes with his plow.

“What a sweetheart he is,” she thought out loud. Tootsie meowed, and Phyllis laughed. “Oh I know you agree with me, but you want some breakfast, don’t you?” She hurriedly fed the cat and rumbled around in the kitchen cabinet for a thermos. Pulling on her boots and heavy coat she shouldered open the door to fetch the newspaper before it froze onto the pile of snow. She hoped the coffee would be done before Matt got back to the top of the driveway.

The headlines blared at her from the front page; she sank down on a kitchen chair and silently read the front page. The coffee maker beeped, making her jump. She looked out the door — Matt was just about to the garage. She poured a cup for herself and the rest in the thermos for Matt and trudged out the front door. He would know what had happened, she thought. The snow was almost up to the top of her high boots, so she stood on the porch and waved the thermos at Matt.

He idled the tractor and jumped down as if he were a man half his age. He scolded her. “I’ve had coffee, and you shouldn’t be out in this without your sidewalk shoveled. I can…”

She interrupted. “Now Matt, let an old lady take care of you. You’re plowing my driveway for goodness sakes. Besides I want to know what you know about the accident last night. I can’t believe this all happened, and I was just safe and snug in the house. I left work early yesterday and never looked out the front windows after I got home.” She held the newspaper in front of him as if he hadn’t yet seen it.

Matt shook his head. “Bad business,” he said. “They got it all right there, except they didn’t say that the other driver was killed instantly too. They said he died at the hospital, but he was already gone when the ambulance driver transported him.”

“Did you go down?” she asked, her voice fading.

“No, but Burton did. We were leaving the church when the emergency vehicles all pulled up. He rode down to the scene with them, and then later came back up and had soup with me.”

“The article said it was still under investigation…” she said.

“Well they’d better investigate the road then. And the weather.”  Matt rubbed his hands together, and Phyllis handed him the thermos.

“I’d invite you in to get warm, but I’d better get in to work. Did you see they interviewed Alex? It looks like they are investigating the road… And thank you so much for plowing — I’d not be going to work if it weren’t for you.”

“Of course. That’s what neighbors are for — and thank you for the coffee. I’m heading right home and I’ll have it with my oatmeal.”

#

Phyllis’ big old boat of a car — a 1980 Oldsmobile — wasn’t really suited for driving down her driveway in the winter. Actually, it wasn’t suited for driving anywhere in the snow, but it just never had seemed the right time to get rid of it. That Oldsmobile was the car she and Andy had bought just days before he died. She had argued that it was too big, but Andy had wanted it. And then two weeks later, he’d had a heart attack and was gone. She should have traded it in immediately, but she hadn’t, couldn’t. And she was left with a car that was too big and memories that became sweeter as the years passed. Lately she’d been noticing that the new cars were smaller and rounder, and she sort of liked them. She was keeping her eyes open. The time had come.

The office was dark when she arrived. She was an hour earlier than usual, so turning on the lights and making coffee became her job. As she was looking in the snack cabinet to see if there was anything still edible, the phone jangled loudly in the empty office.

“Good morning. PennDot District 13, Engineer’s Office. Can I help you?”

The voice on the other end of the phone was loud and jolly. “Good morning to you Phyllis. How is the weather up there this morning?”

There was no mistaking the voice of Ross Fowler from the Harrisburg office.  Often the voice of doom, some engineers said. “Hello, Ross. The weather is calm this morning, but the garage is busy and all the trucks are still out clearing from yesterday evening.”

“Well the office staff is hard at work early. Is Alex there yet, by any chance?”

“He isn’t due in for another twenty minutes or so; can I leave him a message?” She wasn’t going to let Ross think Alex was late.

“Eh, well, I’ve been up all night; I’m just thinking everyone else has been as well. Have him give me a call as soon as he gets in.”

“Right, should be soon.” She was already writing Alex the note to put on his desk. As she hung up the receiver, she thought, Today might be the perfect day for some cinnamon rolls… She put her coat back on and hurried out the door.

#

Twenty minutes later she returned to find Alex sitting at his desk staring at an old map of some sort. She hesitantly walked over to the doorway and Alex motioned for her to come in.

“Did you call Ross?” she asked.

Alex nodded. “Well, actually, he called me just as I had my hand on the receiver,” he said. “What a strange conversation.”

“Stranger than usual?” Phyllis asked with a wry smile.

“Much stranger.” Alex stood up. “Phyllis, were you here when the first plan to re-route 592 was brought up?”

She shook her head. “I came a couple of years after that. Let’s see, it must have been about 1963, because I came in ’65. But I remember it. Oh, wasn’t that an uproar!”

“I don’t know much about it,” Alex admitted. “In 1963 I was ten years old and we lived in Warren, Ohio. Tell me what you remember.”

“Well, as I recall, it was touted as the newest most modern road plan that the Highway Dept. could come up with — a four lane interstate with cloverleafs and all — for a road between here and Hattiesville — with an exit for Price’s Corners! Actually, it was supposed to be a link in a larger pattern of four-lane highways that would come out of Pittsburgh from the northeast, go through State College, and end up in New York somewhere. I think only one section of that plan ever got built — you know, that four-lane between Germantown and Allegany?”

Alex nodded. “I knew that road was unfinished and part of a larger, scrapped plan, but I didn’t know 592 was part of it.”

“There was such a fuss. I’m glad I didn’t work here then. At the time a lot of politicians thought it was a grand idea, and there were rumors that some of them would profit by it, but you know rumors and politics… Truly, I think it was just a quickie scheme to get some Federal highway money into Western Pennsylvania.”

“I’ve been looking at it for the last few minutes.” He walked over to his desk where the map was spread out. Phyllis followed him. “It certainly looks like they just put a straight edge over the road and said, ‘Here’s where the new road will go.’”

Phyllis peered at the map. “So this is what you’ve been studying. Well, in the early sixties interstates and divided highways were the big new thing. I don’t think much thought went into the design. No one expected the ruckus it would cause.”

Alex rummaged through his top drawer, found some tacks, and stuck the old map on the wall. “Is there anyone besides DeBolt who is still here and remembers what happened?” he asked.

“Mr. DeBolt is the only one who’s still around. He would surely talk to you, but I’ve heard recently that he’s not doing very well. I should go visit him.” She paused. “Does all this have to do with Mr. Fowler’s phone call?”

“Sure does. I’m supposed to put everyone on designing a new route 592. It’s supposed to be top secret, and we’re supposed to have it done in a couple of months or so. And it distinctly sounded like if we don’t come through we’re up that proverbial creek without a job.”

“Oh my! Goodness, that’s a lot of supposes! What a tall order — two months!” Phyllis sputtered. “He knows that we’re a small department — only two engineers, a draftsman, and a secretary! An old secretary! And what about public input? Whatever are you going to do, Alex?”

“Phyllis, you are a perfect secretary. I couldn’t ask for anyone better, but you sure aren’t helping right now.” Alex sat down in his chair, and put his chin in his hands. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. I just got the phone call twenty minutes ago…”

Alex looked perfectly miserable and she was immediately contrite. “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. But I still think it’s terrible. I can hold all your calls today. I have some warm cinnamon rolls from The Hearth, and I can bring you a sandwich when I go out to get mine. Anything else?”

“Yes to all of those. Thanks. I’ve got to think this out today, before I say anything to anyone.” He looked at her.

“Not a word. To anyone. But what about Keith?” Keith was the other engineer in the office.

“I’d like to get my thoughts cobbled together a bit before I talk to him. Can you hold him off for a couple of hours? Shoot. I’ve got questions and I don’t know which is worse, to call Ross back and admit that I didn’t think of it, or not call him back and screw up something…”

“Do you want my opinion, or do you want me to be quiet?” She grinned.

He looked at her: a trim, no-nonsense older lady with short brown hair and glasses on a chain around her neck. The perfect, wise secretary who kept the office running like a precision machine. He’d be a fool to not take her opinion on most everything. “I value your opinion, Phyllis. I’m going to be asking for it a lot these days…”

“Absolutely, call him back. And soon, because he was up all night.”

“Yeah, he told me that.”

“And be careful listening to my opinions, because my beautiful house is out there close to that old road…”

“Yeah, I know that, too.” He sighed. “Lots of people have their houses on that road. And no matter what they look like on the outside, the houses are beautiful to them.”

She nodded and quietly shut the door to his office. “Dear God, just let him remember that,” she whispered.